Derren Brown and Hypnosis

I was always a big fan of Derren Brown. As far as his work goes, I think he’s one of the best illusionists of all time. His stage entertainment is best described as “illusion” because almost everything he does is false. Even “effects” (to use the correct phrase in magical circles)  which he hints at being due to one thing are in truth another. Years ago, I was taken in by his ability to ostensibly pick up clues in mouth twitching or facial movements to deduce what word someone was thinking of. I’m not saying he isn’t doing this in some cases, for example – asking people a series of questions and picking out the single lie from the truthful answers has a readily-observable explanation (which he provides) and makes perfect sense. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s a nice ability that anyone could do with a bit of practice in the right setting. But most of the time, if Derren Brown is giving you an answer, or even hinting at the answer, he is almost always deceiving you.

I got into a discussion with a friend recently about DB’s latest TV show. In this episode, which admittedly I didn’t watch, he hypnotised a man into believing a bath of freezing water was mild, even having him lie in it for 8 minutes without discomfort! This supposedly demonstrated the power of hypnosis, or suggestion.

As much as I admire DB’s skill and most of the effects he achieves, in recent years my interest in him has cooled. There are two main reasons for this. One is his over-(mis)use and over-misdirection of supposedly scientific means and his own mental powers (which lessens the impact of his effects), and the other is his use of hypnosis.

Contrary to popular misconceptions and what hypnotists would have us believe, hypnosis is merely socially-learned unconscious behaviour. It is a form of reciprocal role-playing based on how the hypnotised person believes they should act, and how the hypnotist believes he should act. Both expect certain results and play their parts to achieve them. Hypnosis is very much like “speaking in tongues”; of course, the holy spirit isn’t really possessing people and causing them to utter nonsensical sounds, rather, these people are so hyped up in religious fervour they believe they are overcome with holy spirit and unconsciously act how they believe they should. They are playing a role, albeit unknowingly. This is all hypnosis is. Or in the words of Irving Kirsch, it is a “nondeceptive placebo”. In other words, hypnotised people believe they are “hypnotised” and act how they have come to understand a “hypnotised” person behaves. This behaviour can be guided or moulded by the hypnotist in more specific ways.

So, when you see DB take a young lady up on stage, ask her to look ahead, then up, then at him, after which he clicks his fingers and tells her to sleep – and she drops her head and closes her eyes – you are not observing magic or any abnormal power at work. He is doing nothing that you couldn’t do. (Consider that those who don’t believe in hypnosis can’t be hypnotised.) There is nothing going on here except the power of suggestion.

Now, the power of suggestion is very real, and is probably a testament to what the human mind can achieve when so conditioned. If anything, we should really take inspiration from it as a tool in our lives, (for example by having a positive outlook and an expectancy that we can and will achieve our goals). Hypnosis is simply an elaborate game to dress up suggestion and make it appear that something deeper is going on. Hypnosis adds a sense of wonder to the proceedings, if done for entertainment, credibility, if done professionally, otherworldliness, if done for occult or supernatural reasons.

There is no such thing as a hypnotic trance, and “hypnotised” people will not perform actions that are far removed from what their regular sensibilities will allow. For example, someone under hypnosis will not shoot themselves or jump off a cliff. The “power” of hypnosis will only go so far, and is curiously similar to what the subject is prepared to do anyway for attention, keeping the hypnotist happy, entertaining the audience, or the pressure to play along. In other words, if you really don’t want to get undressed on stage, you won’t – no matter how hypnotised you are or think you are.

But Derren Brown knows all this. He knows that hypnosis is largely convoluted, but is more than happy to perpetuate the myth because he needs people to believe it works. Even if they don’t believe it, he needs them to play along.

There is more going on with a good DB effect than the effect itself. He is perhaps most famous for being the guy who achieves seemingly supernatural effects by natural means, and is firmly opposed to the harm done by supernaturalists. He can cold-read better than most of the best “psychics” out there, levitate tables and chairs, produce coins with messages from beyond the grave, and have you subconsciously intuit dead from alive merely by looking at photographs. We know he isn’t doing any of this, but the effect is powerful, and those rational in the audience accept that it’s all done naturally. It  amazes us and baffles us, perhaps sends a shiver down our spine, and discredits the fraud and evil of the mystics all in one go. We don’t need to know how he does it, all we need to know is that it’s a trick.

But when it comes to hypnosis, this is one quasi-scientific area he’s happy to leave alone. You can’t say that we, the ones in the know, us clever people in the audience, aren’t supposed to be fooled by it, because we are supposed to be. For me it’s a bit like his “prediction” of the National Lottery numbers. It seemed impossible, and the effect was amazing. But then he went and ruined it by explaining how he did it. Not because he really explained it, but because he tried to feed us the most bullshit explanation ever, which most sane people wouldn’t buy, and which he himself would never believe! It was exactly the kind of mystical anti-scientific crap he works hard to discredit! He’d have been better off not explaining anything, or actually showing us how he really did the trick. To be fair, he admitted himself he didn’t like this stunt and wished he’d have done it differently.

But the point is, don’t take anything DB does as a performer at face value. Not even the stuff you think he’s explaining. As I mentioned earlier, a favourite trick of his is to intuit a secret word in the mind of a guest by their mannerisms or face movements. Of course, no human being in the world can do this – and I challenge anyone to guess a word I am thinking of. He drops hints that he’s picking up on subconscious clues and invites us to do the same to the subject. In reality, he is doing nothing of the sort.

Similarly, an effect he performed for his original TV show had a man separate photographs into two piles based on whether he got a superficial positive or negative vibe just by looking at the pictures. At the end, it was revealed that the “positive” pile were people who were alive, and the “negative” people happened to be of deceased. (I won’t reveal how it’s done, but this trick is very famous in its original form). But, it was a better effect by not being accompanied by some pseudo-rational explanation, which would’ve been a discredit to reason and somewhat condescending to the audience.

In another effect, and a more light-hearted one, he identifies the “liars” from a row of people just by listening to their answers without even looking at them. It’s a great trick, and gets the audience laughing, as the dirty liar gets exposed from the most innocuous answers. His brilliant showman skills allude to being a master of reading people, when the secret behind this effect is incredibly mundane. It took me 10 seconds to figure out how he did this: there is more deception on deception taking place here, and a good example of taking everything Derren says with a pinch of salt. (By the way, I’ve been to all DB’s stage shows each year. Ironically, and unfortunately, the most powerful and beautiful effect he performed last year was also the easiest to explain. I won’t say which one it was. During the intermission, my friends and I figured it out – and I was disappointed, not because of how he did it, but because afterwards the emotion of the effect evaporated. I would rather not figure it out, or more precisely, not be able to. Once the mystery is revealed, the emotional resonance is lost. What remains, and is by no means trivial, is an appreciation for the technical skill of the illusionist. I should also mention that whilst the emotion of the effect was thereafter lost, the meaning and the accompanying message was still beautiful and true.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter that he’s lying – because he’s an illusionist. He’s supposed to deceive us spectacularly, and the delivery and style is unique and engaging. But do some of his alleged “powers” actually give a false notion of science and the human mind? My problem is not with any of his effects, but is it better to maintain total mystery than to hint at a lie? How much credibility should be given to the idea that words and truths can be plucked from someone’s head before it goes from “it’s obviously only a trick” to “it takes a special skill to do that” to “I can do that with people myself”? How healthy is it to lend credence to hypnosis, just for an effect, if people run off to buy books on it, or spend hundreds on classes for it, visit a hypno”therapist”, or worse, attempt past-life regression?

In one effect (I mentioned the girl on stage who was hypnotised after a click of the fingers), DB gets the subject to use “unconscious writing” to apparently divine a word or number she couldn’t otherwise have known. You can say that it’s not supernatural, which it isn’t. You can say that DB despises mediums and abhors the supernatural as an explanation of anything, which he does. But the effect is: ‘under hypnosis, this person achieved a feat they couldn’t have otherwise’. If that isn’t the effect, why hypnotise them? One answer is: he is recreating a supposedly paranormal effect using natural means, thereby discrediting the former. But this effect wasn’t even about the power of suggestion (like the bath tub one was). Hypnosis is here just a means to an end, and did it present a false image of hypnosis? Did it give hypnosis a rational scientific credibility? It surely misrepresents the power of suggestion and the capriciousness of the human mind. Now, one could object that what it really does (with stunts like The Heist, where people were “brainwashed” to perform an armed robbery), is show how gullible some people can be, in which case DB is providing a very important object lesson for us all. Though I’m not sure how positive or life-affirming it is to perpetuate the idea that we can all be controlled to varying degrees to act completely out of character, just with the right “programming”. This isn’t a healthy self-image, nor do I believe a correct one. It is a trick staged with purported rational and scientific credibility. Is DB doing reason and science good or harm here? And if he is painting a false picture of the world, how is this any different to some of the people he denounces? Again, you could say that he is genuinely able to achieve these results using manipulation alone (which is the implication) – but when so much of his patter is nonsense, how can we be expected to know the difference?

Perhaps my gripe, and it’s really minor I must stress, is personal instead of professional: perhaps I feel slightly let down because I think in some ways I’m being patronised. If you know for example that hypnosis is rubbish and have a good idea how DB performs his effects, a lot of the delivery and window dressing loses its impact. I’d rather be told nothing and be totally stumped on a mystery, than be offered some half-truth. DB invites us to “meet him half way”, between what he apparently achieves and what is really happening. That’s all well and good, but he isn’t really meeting us half way is he? Even his half is a deception, yet another misdirection on a misdirection, leaving us in the position of not being able to take anything he says with honesty. And when you do that, you start to scrutinise his effects more for the real answer, which in my experience dilutes the power of the illusion. A far simpler and more famous trick, like sawing a woman in half, is far more impressive to me than programming people to commit a crime.

Similarly, when one has achieved so many great things in a career, it’s natural to keep pushing the boundaries and going for bigger and more extravagant. I wonder if DB has reached the limit of what his amazing skills can achieve, without redressing an old trick in new garb. In my opinion, magic is best when it’s personal and confined, and the emphasis is on the emotional impact of the effect, not on the sheer size of the effect. That’s why the illusionist Dynamo is much better when he’s materialising a phone into a sealed bottle than walking on water across the Thames. The former is personal: my phone teleported inside a jar – impossible! Incredible! Right before my eyes! A man walking on water? Meh. There’s glass under the surface; the trick is so incredibly false and surreal it’s hollow. Predicting the lottery results? Not interested, but making this chair float? That’s magic! Hypnotising someone to forget how to be a pianist? Social role-playing. Winning a race with the losing ticket? Jaw-dropping!

The best effects are usually the simplest. But if DB is going to be a champion of rationality and oppose the mystical, like the Randis and Dawkins of this world, then perhaps it’s worth looking at what image he himself generates of it. DB is at his best when he’s performing the incredible and being honest about it. One example is using a voodoo doll on a New Age believer only to present a twist at the end. The New Age movement (and the subject) come off looking silly and undermined, whilst the power of belief and suggestion is demonstrated, and there’s a lovely little sleight of hand to go with it. But we know what we need to know about the effect. A better example is his use of cold-reading to recreate paranormal effects. We know that he can’t commune with the dead, and we could never hope to match his skill and delivery, but we know how it’s done; we understand the trick and skill involved, and we’re wiser as a result. We aren’t being fed some crap about lip movement or crowd wisdom.

Nor are we led to believe that a psychological response is anything other than expectancy-based suggestion. The power of suggestion is real, but hypnosis is elaborate garb which detracts from a very real, fascinating and potentially useful ability. The truth might be better served by not giving hypnosis more power than it really has. And if hypnosis is worthy of anything, surely it must be separated from those who misuse it, even unknowingly, like hypnotherapists and occultists? Just like cold-reading should be separated from communing with the dead, so should genuine suggestion be from the act/game/con that accompanies the field of hypnosis. If hypnosis has reasonable and practical applications, like any placebo effect, all the more reason to be clear about what it is, and isn’t. There’s a reason medicines are medicines and placebos aren’t. One could retort that by being totally straight about hypnosis, any power it has is destroyed. But isn’t that the point? If some get comfort from hypnotic treatment, despite it being superficial, and despite most practitioners being well-meaning people – how is this different than the comfort one might get from a visit to a well-meaning medium who isn’t aware they are being fraudulent?

Perhaps I’m just saying that Derren Brown, one of the great performers and showmen of all time, is at his best when he’s deceiving us honestly.

The New Atheists have just changed God’s name

Tim Sandefur over at his blog has posted a total demolition of a Sam Harris blog post entitled “How rich is too rich?” It’s called “Sam Harris, anti-reason“, and here’s the link.

Sandefur brilliantly illustrates how Harris, like Hitchens, Dawkins, and other Neo-Atheists, who are nearly always Left-wing Liberals, have simply taken all the unspoken and mystical assumptions of religion, but replaced service to “God” with service to “others”; the “others” being, well, anyone but ourselves. Service to society, the public good, those “in need”, those without what we have. They have taken the self-sacrificial preachings of Christ and simply blotted out the nasty “god” parts. They have regurgitated the mysticism and ephemeral bilge of religion, all in the name of rationality, atheism, science, and all that good “free-thinking” stuff.

Even more worrying is the total economic ignorance Harris shows, so we shouldn’t wonder that his followers across the blogosphere, all the internet atheists, demonstrate this level of ineptitude and misunderstanding of economics. And not just economics, politics. And not just politics, but ethics.

As Sandefur himself points out, Harris and the Neo Atheists are superbly adept at pointing out all the logical fallacies and loopholes in the arguments of the religious, yet Harris can’t even define his own simple terms. He contradicts himself. His premises are unspoken, unjustified, or simply wrong.

It’s very rarely I criticise religion on my blog anymore. In fact, I haven’t written anything anti-religious in years. Why? Because I really don’t see the religious (with the exception of Islam and the fundamentalist Right-Wing American Christians) as the primary threat to my well-being. It’s the socialists, the collectivists, the Left, which the Neo-Atheist “rational” crowd flock to, which is a far greater problem. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say I don’t see the religious as more or less of a threat than the New Age Atheists, it’s that I lump them all together; I see them as just different types of the same problem.

Whatever your political persuasion, you should really read the article.

UK riots – my thoughts on who, what and why

As riots continued for a third night running in major cities across the UK, many have had their say on the animalistic slime causing massive devastation to property and lives. What should we do about it? What is an appropriate response and what is too far? Why do yobs do this sort of thing? I’ll give my thoughts.

First of all, it’s not really clear what these barely-human criminals are rioting about. There is no doubt in my mind that most of them are simply along for the ride, and enjoy the thrill and excitement of being in the mob, mindlessly ruining without consideration. Even if there was a legitimate purpose to riot, surely the cause is negated by the gross violation of the rights of innocent citizens whose lives and property are being wrecked? What cause could possibly be worth fighting for that is somehow not connected, or superior to, the legitimate rights of others?

So should the government call in the army? No. There is a reason why the army is not and should not be used to keep the law. The army defends the country from enemies of the state; the police protect the citizens and enforce the law. When the army is used against its own citizens, the enemies of the state become its own people. Government power should necessarily be heavily limited in this regard and we cannot throw away that principle when it seems expedient. So should police use lethal force against the rioters? Again, I would say no, not unless it is absolutely necessary. Whilst it is true that these rioters are degenerate insects who deserve no mercy, the law and the police derive their power from their citizens and cannot begin arbitrarily executing them when they get out of hand.

However, I should stress that the rioters have freely abandoned the rule of law and chosen to violate the Rights of their fellow citizens. The cause does not matter, if there even is one. Riot police should be deployed in full force and use water cannons, tasers, tear gas and rubber bullets. The rioters should be beaten into submission, even if it means hospitalising them. The message must be loud and clear: the government will protect the rights of individuals from any threat, foreign or domestic, and those who contravene this rule should be put down, hard. There should be no compromise with vicious thugs. Force should be met with force. Not for the purpose of hurting them, or teaching them a lesson, or quashing citizens under the boot of the government – no, for the purpose of protecting individual Rights.

One thing that also needs pointing out is the makeup of the mob: the majority are youths. The obvious question once again: where are the parents? Once again we are witnessing the result of mediocre and disinterested parenting, of a society where family and integrity is meaningless, where the mothering and fathering skills of adults have atrophied due to a government that insists on doing our thinking for us. How can you expect youths to respect the rights of others, when everywhere you look, the concept of Rights of individuals is watered down or ignored? How can you ask parents to do their jobs and regulate their children, when across the world we see parents asking the government to create yet another rule, regulation or law to restrict content on this, age limits on that, certificates on this, bans on that, censorship on this, criminalisation on that. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the government stayed out of our private affairs and parents had to actually do their job, they would raise their children in a more responsible and dignified manner? Which brings me to my next point: the parents of any youth found convicted in these riots should be forced to make reparations to the owners of damaged property. Your kids, your problem. They smashed, stoned, defaced and burned it? You will pay for it.

I’m not excusing the rioters at all, but I am hardly surprised by their actions. Our culture is warped and sick. In almost every article I write I talk about philosophy, and how it’s a vital part of everyday life, whether people realise it or not. But look at the “intellectuals” of today; look at the philosophy that pervades the world: we are told that reality isn’t real, that there are no moral truths, that there are no real whites and blacks, that morality is subjective and uncertain, that our senses are weak or useless, that the good is whatever the majority commands, that the purpose of life is to sacrifice it, that property is greed, that Rights are “selfish”, that intelligence is sad, that power is all that matters, that dedication and determination are a waste of time, that fame for fame’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake and money for money’s sake is the lifestyle to pursue, that scientists and businessmen are fools and whores, but celebrities and sportsmen should be objects of idolatry and role-models to follow. This might not be the culture the intellectuals and the philosophers and the bureaucrats wanted, but it’s the one they deserved. This is the inevitable result of an evil and flawed worldview from Christianity to Socialism, from Islam to Communism, from Fascism to Humanism, from Libertarianism to Anarchism, from Hume to Kant, Christ to Mohammed, Nietzsche to Plato: the rejection of moral truths in this world; the denial of morality as useful to the individual in his everyday life. In essence it is this: the rejection of reason.

To those of who you say there is no such thing as morality, that truth is ambiguous, that reality isn’t real, that good and bad are just matters of opinion, that man is just an animal in shoes, that we carry original sin or instead are merely slightly-evolved apes, I say: this is the world you wanted. Well you have it. You wanted a world where reason didn’t matter, where good and bad were just opinions, where truth was both sides of the coin – well this is what happens in such a world. People blow each other up, they fly planes into buildings, they commit holy wars, they rob and pillage in the name of “welfare”, they set fire to buildings, destroy livelihoods, and they riot for the sheer thrill of rioting. Because they don’t know any better, because you told them there was no better, and if there was, there was no way to know it, and so it didn’t matter what they did, because nothing was right or wrong anyway and no one alive could ever know it.

To those who believe that truth and morality are subjective, I say I hope you’re happy with the results of your philosophy. These riots across the UK are just one symptom, but they aren’t the disease itself.

I’m so selfish…and generous

I bought a new TV (television that is – no fetishes involved), and I was left with the choice of what to do with my old one. A few people had inquired about it, including my brother who several months ago asked me for a quote if and when I was selling it. (It’s five years old but still a great TV in perfect condition; my new one is just better!). Instead of selling it on and making some of the money for the new one back, I decided to give my old TV to my bro and his family as a gift. I knew that he wouldn’t be expecting it, which is what made it better. So I drove there (50 minute trip in both directions), for an alleged “flying visit” with my dad. After a cup of coffee I announced I had something for him in the car. I led him out and presented him with my old TV – which is bigger and better than what they currently have. He was speechless at first, then extremely grateful. I explained to him my reasons for giving it to him, as opposed to the other options I had, and he gave me a back-handed compliment. A compliment, because it was intended as such but also because it’s one of the best things someone can say about you whether they intend it kindly or not, and back-handed in the sense that it is often contrasted with generosity. He said it was “very objective” of me. In other words, I reached the decision through pure logic.

It made me smile. You see, my reasons for being generous were purely selfish. The few hundred pounds I would’ve gotten for the TV were irrelevant to me, and paled in comparison to how much this would mean to my brother and his family. Incidentally, it was his wedding anniversary the week previous which I’d forgotten! When my dad said it would make a nice present I was like “oh…yes…the anniversary…” But I was planning to give it to them anyway, occasion or not. It was “objective” of me to make the gift. It was rational, objective, “cold and dispassionate” some might say. I calculated the value of resale versus the selfish pleasure I would get from doing something nice for someone I cared about, and the new value by proxy my old TV would have in my life, through the lives of others. It was precisely because these people are selfish values in my life that made the act generous. If I was to be selfless, by all rights I should’ve given the TV to a bum on a street corner.

Additionally, we could’ve dropped the TV off when he wasn’t around but it was better to see the reaction of receiving a gift, which was another selfish motive in my decision. I wanted him to know that I was doing this for him, and that it was down to my generosity and the value he holds in my life. And I wanted to witness his reaction to affirm that virtue in myself.

So when he said “thank you so much. It’s really appreciated”, I assured him that it was “purely selfish” – and I meant it.

The pleasure I received, the emotion, was the result of my rational actions. Emotion wasn’t the impulse or motive, but the reward. The motive was acting to pursue my values rationally and objectively. Family means more than almost anything else in life, so the decision was easy to make.

Socialised medicine claims yet another innocent life

Just recently, I wrote about how the elected representatives and protectors of Britain are spending almost a billion pounds of their citizens’ money to vaccinate poor children. I also pointed out how such actions are not noble or philanthropic, but yet another futile demonstration of altruism at work: self-destructive sacrifice for others.

Only today I came across a shocking example of how true this is. Whilst the British government inoculates third world children with our money, in this country, in one of the supposed gems of the Western world, with the shining achievement of socialism: the NHS, a young woman dies from gross incompetence when a couple of simple injections would’ve saved her life. Link. Read this, and tell me that a paying customer in a private service would be treated to such pathetic negligence and arrogance. To those Lefties who think that capitalism’s flaw is that it leaves people behind, take a good look at your system. People are already being left behind. They are dying in the tens of thousands every year because a bumbling inefficient impractical politically-weighted system with grand aspirations of universal care (paid for by others) consistently fails.

This is the arrogance and evil of socialism: capitalism has never been given a fair crack at the whip, but in those isolated markets in those isolated times where it was allowed to partially flourish, it gave technology, advancements, jobs and commodities for steadily-decreasing costs (For a very few examples, I give you the industries of clothing, food, mobile phones, computers and the internet). Yet, the Left blames capitalism for all of its own failures, and consistently declares itself the only fair and moral system, “if only we could get it right”. Well guess what? No one has ever gotten socialism right. No other system has so consistently and spectacularly failed to deliver and been so antithetic to human rights, and yet been so blindly praised and lauded. Socialism is like a cult whose adherents’ faith grows as its failures mount up. It’s almost enough to make you believe that if Reverend Socialist promised a space-flight after drinking the “special potion”, the supermarkets would run out of bleach overnight. (Of course, the Left would blame capitalism for the shortage of bleach and demand a government allocation scheme to resolve the problem.)

Jo Dowling is the name of the woman who died, and she is one of many thousands every year whose lives are cut short because of an easily-preventable disease or illness. Where is your “no one left behind” now? I’m sure the vaccinated kids in Africa will be of great comfort to Jo’s friends and family, who talked with her over increasingly-distressing text messages right up to her death.

No capitalist claims that our system would take care of everyone. Instead, we realise that since healthcare and medicine are commodities provided by the property, service and innovation of other people, like any market of supply and demand, there can be no guarantee to these things. Yet socialism arrogantly declares, (and gets away with!) that it will take care of everyone, everywhere, for free! (Not free for those who make such schemes possible in the first place, however.)

It’s time we all declared that the Emperor is naked. The Cult of Socialism is a vile disease that should be talked about, exposed and overthrown. But it cannot be done on the grounds of altruism, on the morality of sacrifice. For capitalism to succeed, we must realise that the moral code behind socialism’s failure is the fault: altruism is self-destructive and there is nothing noble or “humanitarian” about it. The only objective basis for morality is rational egoism and self-interest, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

More taxpayers’ money pledged for foreign aid

David Cameron is offering up even more of our money on the altar of altruism: £814m to provide vaccinations for poor people in third world countries. Story.

Isn’t this a noble action? No. Let’s dispel this myth at the start. There is nothing neither noble nor honourable in pouring hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money into another country. Bill Gates says “The United Kingdom has also been very generous and its taxpayers should be thanked.” No we shouldn’t, because we didn’t have a choice whether to contribute or not. Charity at gunpoint is not charity. (This little truth is ignored by all socialists in their war for a “humanitarian” redistributionist utopia.)

I am most certainly not cold to the suffering of others, but I am not a hypocrite either. In the words of Ayn Rand: “Poverty is not a mortgage on the labor of others—misfortune is not a mortgage on achievement—failure is not a mortgage on success—suffering is not a claim check, and its relief is not the goal of existence—man is not a sacrificial animal on anyone’s altar nor for anyone’s cause—life is not one huge hospital.”

With the economy on its last legs here and around the world, with recession and an ever-rising cost of living, with schools and hospitals being closed, overcrowded prisons, the NHS millions in debt, why is our government, our sacred protector, our servant, being so generous with our money? Now, this isn’t to say I support the NHS or state schools (as I reject all socialised institutions), but if taxpayer money is to be spent on futile altruistic causes, those causes should at least be domestic for one very important unassailable reason: the government serves the people of its country, NO ONE else. Redistribution of property is bad enough, as it necessarily means the sacrifice of the capable, intelligent and productive, but when taxpayers’ wealth is distributed outside the country it is an act of treason by the government against its very clients. The proper role of government is to protect Rights, not to act as international good-will emissary or charity function, or to play philanthropist with the very property of the people it should be safeguarding.

Shadow international development secretary Harriet Harman said it was “unacceptable” that millions of children in the developing world die from illnesses which could be prevented by vaccinations which are taken for granted in the UK.” I think it’s unacceptable that tens of thousands of deaths occur every year in the UK because cancer and blood clots aren’t spotted early enough by the NHS. But more on that shortly.

Pouring millions into third-world poverty is like trying to fill a colander. The point that our governments and all the altruists don’t realise, or choose to ignore, is this: why are some countries better off than others in the first place? If most diseases are easily preventable in the UK, it’s not because we are raping and pillaging poor countries. Our cures don’t come from the blood and souls of the poor. Diabolical pharmaceutical companies are not rounding up third-world children and making drugs out of their bones. So why then in the Western world is our standard of living so much better? Industrialisation, brought about by capitalism. Capitalism, though perverted, diluted, bastardised and corrupted by our governments, has a superb track record of improving quality and lowering prices. Any free or semi-free market proves this. Or in the words of Joseph Schumpeter: “It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elisabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.” (Bold mine).

The cure for poverty is not charity, and charity cannot by definition be given by taxpayers. What the third world needs is capitalism. The third world will be forever dependent on the developed world until it starts to produce for itself. That isn’t going to happen overnight and it won’t be easy. But it shouldn’t come through our sacrifices either. Consider that Bill Gates himself has donated more than the British government. Is it any surprise that GAVI is encountering a massive shortfall as fiat currency and inflation destroy the true wealth and savings of private citizens? (This is the source of charity.)

Harriet Harman continued: “The private sector must also play its part by supplying vaccines at the lowest possible prices.” Well, before one starts making demands on the private sector, one might want to consider where the bulk of tax actually comes from, and who discovers vaccines in the first place and the plethora of regulations and red-tape they are forced to endure. If government really wants to encourage private companies to be more generous with their vaccines, they might want to stop eating into the latter’s profit margin and investment capital. Why doesn’t the government be more generous with business tax and regulation?

“But don’t you care about millions of children dying in poor countries?” It is hard to give a straight answer to this question without being pilloried or misconstrued. Do I care? Yes and no. I would love to see poverty eliminated on earth entirely, just as I want to see crime and disease eliminated. I think a child dying of an easily-preventable disease is a tragic but logical consequence of their surroundings. I don’t feel guilty about it and I don’t believe I owe anything to those worse off. I don’t believe that the poor have earned goodwill simply by being poor, but I do approve of helping others when they are honest and well-intentioned people, and if their lives are conducive (however indirectly) to one’s values.  (For example, if third-world terrorists are starving, I couldn’t care less.)

But I also I accept that poverty, just like crime and disease, isn’t something that can be wiped out by fascist governments (no matter how well-intentioned their motives). The solution will require slow and strenuous effort to drag a country from poverty to wealth, and it will be the inventors, the businessmen, the capitalists, doing the dragging, as it always is. But it is not fair on the people of another country to be looted, even if it means that many lives are saved in the short-term. Charity must begin at home. Finally, we must totally reject the notion that governments make aid happen. If all government aid stopped in a week, the free wealthy people of this world would continue to help the poor, inasmuch as it is practical and worthwhile for them to do so.

Hereditarily-disabled man considers fatherhood

I was reading this story, and it made me stop and consider the morality of bringing a child into this world with a high risk of deformity. In my opinion, this is a very tough moral issue, because the circumstances in which to make the decision vary, and the context is wide. That is not to say it is a grey issue, as there are no grey issues with morality; (in fact the very notion of grey issues is self-contradictory). Either there is no standard for right and wrong, which is philosophically ridiculous, or there is a standard and we only need to look hard enough. But this isn’t to say that a conclusion is easy, or always attainable. That is, it may be impossible to make an “arm-chair” moral decision on someone else’s behalf, because only they might know the full context in which that decision is made. For example, having a baby in itself is inherently neither good nor bad; (nothing is inherently good or bad; good and bad acquire relevance to a rational being). Whether it’s right or wrong to have a baby depends on a lot of factors, and the emotional appeal “because I want it” is not sufficient grounds for any moral decision.

In this particular story, Jono is a man with Treacher Collins condition; no cheek bones – there is a 50% chance his progeny will acquire the same condition. I won’t presume to second-guess whatever decision he and his girlfriend take, but I would like to comment on some of the opinions being offered in this account.

His girlfriend “really wants the child to be [their] child.” The couple want to go through pregnancy together and give birth. I can appreciate this, as much as an unmarried childless man can, but does the joy of this temporary experience outweigh the very real possibility of their child going through their entire life with a deformity? What might the child say in 20 years’ time? Now, I am not saying that parents should sacrifice their desires and values to a child (real or potential); rather, the parents’ rational self-interests must include those of their child, long-term (otherwise the child wouldn’t actually be an interest to them, which is clearly preposterous).

Aside from adoption, one option facing them is IVF with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (IVF PGD), which means the embryo can be screened before implantation. Naturally, there are objections to this from certain groups, most obviously the religious. But since the ultimate goal in religion is not to ensure the well-being of man, but to serve a fairy-tale character in the sky – and given religion’s irrational and anti-human code of morality, little needs to be said to counter these objections.

More interestingly is the opinion of some disabled groups, for which Ian Macrae speaks: “It re-enforces the stereotypical notion that disability per se is a bad thing that should be excluded and that disabled lives are intrinsically less valuable.” If one’s moral code holds human life as the standard, which Objectivism does, and encourages well-being and flourishing, then disabilities are bad, almost by definition. That’s the ugly truth: most rational people would not be disabled if given the choice, and would change it if they could. But, do not swallow the above quote whole, as it contains a glaring error based on poor philosophy: nothing is intrinsically valuable. Values are literally things we pursue or strive to keep; things gain value to living beings. A disabled person you don’t know is no more or less valuable to you than any other person you don’t know. No human being is intrinsically valuable, because this would imply that values are valuable to some external presence, which doesn’t make sense. Certainly, disabled people value their own lives, as do those that love them; no other validation is required.

If disabilities are an unfortunate but undesirable fact of life, should we not seek to avoid them? What parent, if given the option to guarantee no birth defects or disabilities, wouldn’t take it? I should point out that the desire to avoid disabilities is not driven by some collectivist dream of benefiting a greater good, or perfecting a gene pool (as the Nazis tried), or fear of “wasting” space or resources on the planet; collective values don’t exist. The desire for “best possible” is a personal selfish matter that we all engage in, and which we extend to our children when the time comes (children are a personal selfish value).

Macrae actually goes on to give us an example of this collectivist thinking when he says “for me, disabled people are part of the rich mix of a diverse society.” Is a diverse society with a ‘little bit of everything thrown in’ a good thing? Well, should we import more Blacks, Whites, or Asians if there aren’t enough in a given area? If a given society has no disabled people, should we break a few legs to increase the “diversity”? I don’t mean to be crass, but you see the point. Human beings are remarkably diverse as we are; societies naturally tend to variety anyway when left alone.

Jono has doubts over IVF PGD because “if my parents had chosen to do it, I wouldn’t be here today.” That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that Jono would be here, but without his condition. And pedantically speaking, if “you” were conceived a millisecond later by another sperm, would “you” still exist? I’m not sure how useful this kind of hypothetical thinking is for making practical life choices.

Jono says “there are all these other amazing people in the world with genetic disorders, I think the world is a better place because they are in it.” Jono is entitled to his opinion, but I’d point out that he is deciding the entire life of his potential child too; whether you like it or not, appearance plays a massive part in our social interactions.  I think chosen personal character traits are the most attractive features of all, but it would be naive to dismiss physical appearance as unimportant. And even if it is for some people, would Jono’s child be one of them?

Jono continues “I’d feel in some way like I’m insulting or disrespecting them, and that’s what I’m struggling with.” I can only offer my opinion, which is: to use your power to avoid unwanted effects on you or someone you love requires no apology. Remember, the standard for morality is human well-being, not disability. Disabled people may or may not be wonderful attractive people, but disability itself is not a goal to be sought, nor should it be the standard by which decisions are judged.

Dr Christine Patch is right when she says that couples should “make the decision that is right for them.” (Bold mine). But then she says “…they may quite rightly see themselves as being able to fulfil a normal valuable role in society…” I wasn’t aware that our value to “society” (whoever that is) was the justification we needed to exist? (But notice the collectivist mindset again; it is so taken for granted.)

I believe IVF PGD (if affordable and available) is the most rational course of action for couples in this situation. It is therefore the morally correct course of action. Religious qualms are irrelevant. Ethical qualms are misplaced. If the option to avoid impairing a child in any way is possible, it should be taken by the parents. If it’s not possible, the parents must surely consider the life they will be giving their child – physically and emotionally – for as long as it lives. I also don’t think parents should second guess their potential offspring by thinking ‘he’ll get over it’, or ‘I dealt with it, so can she’. Having said that, none of us had the choice whether to be born or not; we had to rely on the love and judgments of our parents, for better or worse. “Starting a family should be a romantic and exciting time – and hopefully by the time we are ready to have children, we’ll be able to make our dream a reality.” I hope for Jono and his girlfriend Laura, it works out for the better.

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